Kitchen Glossary for Beginners: Techniques

July 4, 2008 at 10:31 pm 1 comment

I had a “teachable moment” a few days ago. The lesson, in this case, came from my daughter, who is definitely in the ranks of beginning cooks.

She called me from her apartment at college three states away. “Mom,” she practically whined, “I want to make the chicken casserole you make. What does it mean to sauté a chicken breast?”

Sometimes it takes a question like that to make me step back and realize how much there is to know about cooking. So, in the spirit of  “no such thing as a stupid question,” here’s a list of common cooking terms and brief definitions. This is not a complete list, by any means. I’m focusing here on techniques, not ingredients or equipment (those lists will be added, part of a “Resources” category for future reference). If it’s something you do to food, here you’ll find a concise description, without covering the obvious terms, like “melt.” I’m betting even beginners have figured that out!

Adjust seasoning: Taste what you’re cooking just before you’re ready to serve, and add salt, pepper or other seasonings to your liking. But go lightly: it’s always easier to add more seasoning than to take it out!
Baste: Coating whatever it is you’re cooking  with butter, sauce, or pan juice as it bakes. Many recipes will recommend using a bulb-shaped baster, but a spoon works just as well.
Beat: Mix ingredients together quickly until they are thoroughly blended.  An electric mixer is often used for this.
Boil: Heating a liquid until bubbles come to the surface. A “rapid boil” means that many large bubbles are popping to the surface quickly.
To cook food by first browning it in a little oil, and then adding liquid to the pan, covering it, and finishing the cooking over low, moist heat.
Brown: Cooking food quickly (often meats) to make the outside appear brown, while keeping the inside moist. This is usually done in a pan on top of the stove over high heat.
Cream: Not what you put in your coffee! The verb means to beat an ingredient, usually butter or margarine, with sugar until it’s soft and blended.
Dredge: Lightly coating food for frying, usually using flour, cornmeal, or bread crumbs.
Fold: To work a light, fluffy mixture into a heavier mixture by gently lifting with a spoon or spatula from beneath and folding the heavier mixture over.
Glaze: Coating a food with a thin liquid, such as milk or egg white, to make the finished piece smooth and shiny.
Knead: To mix dough, as for bread or rolls, with your hands or with a mixer, until the dough is stretchy and smooth, which is called “elastic.”
Marinate: To soak meat, fish, or vegetables in a seasoned liquid to add flavor.
Mince: To chop finely.
Parboil: To partially cook food in boiling water.
Reduce: To cook a liquid over high heat long enough to force the water to evaporate, which thickens the liquid into a sauce and intensifies its flavor.
Sauté: To cook food, usually meat, over high heat in some oil or butter until it is brown. Trivia for the day: Sauté is French for “jump.”
Simmer: To bring a dish to the point where it bubbles gently.
Stew: To slowly cook food in some liquid in a tightly covered pot. Now you know how the meal got its name!
Whip: To beat rapidly, using a wire whisk or an electric mixer, so air is incorporated into the liquid (usually cream or egg whites).

If you encounter terms not covered here, there are some great resources you can turn to. Online, is a comprehensive resource for all cooks, regardless of expertise. If you prefer a book, I recommend “How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food,” by Mark Bittman. Don’t be intimidated by its size!


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Lisa Kirby  |  July 6, 2008 at 5:31 am

    Dredge was a new term for me. I’ve done it, but didn’t know what it was called!

    I love cooking and just looking through recipe books. I’ll be sharing your site with my daughters, too.

    Have a wonderful weekend.

    Lisa Kirby

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